What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City (1901)
Director: George S. Fleming, Edwin S. Porter
Cast: A.C. Abadie, Florence Georgie
Synopsis: In front of one of the largest newspaper offices is a hot air shaft through which immense volumes of air are forced by a blower. Ladies in crossing this shaft often have their clothes slightly disarranged.
What Happened on 23rd Street, New York City, begins as a standard slice-of-life actuality, but takes an unexpected turn in its closing seconds, providing a twist ending that probably caused no end of ribald merriment in the theatres of 1901. The film would provide an interesting window on a world long gone even without its titillating finale, with Edwin S. Porter’s camera positioned to capture a shot of New York residents going about their everyday business. The pace looks fairly sedate by today’s standards, but it was probably the most intense that life got back then. There are no cars in sight, although we do see a passing tram and can see an elevated train crossing above the street in the distance. A number of horse-drawn carriages are parked on the sides of the road. Men and women walk the length of the street, most of them paying little or no attention to the camera, apart from one young lad who stares intently at it for the film’s entire running time. At one point, he looks behind him at a couple approaching before moving to his left, and the suspicion is that he’s in on the trick, even though he has no part to play. Perhaps the shot was rehearsed off-camera in order to ensure the desired effect would be achieved.
What happens next is what gave the film its notoriety back in 1901. It looks as though the presence of the camera to capture the young lady’s embarrassment when she pauses over an air duct through which a blast of air momentarily lifts her skirt is coincidental, but it’s not. Her name was Florence Georgie, and as far as known this is her only claim to fame; her companion is A. C. Abadie, who shot a number of films for Edison until 1904. The entire scene is staged, but is pulled off so convincingly that audiences of the day were no doubt convinced it was authentic. Watching What Happened on 23rd Street, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Marilyn Monroe’s similar stunt in The Seven Year Itch more than half a century later…
(Reviewed 9th September 2014)